Zuma’s terrible policy conference

President Jacob Zuma had a disastrous policy conference. Widespread expectations that a coalition of pro-Zuma provinces and leagues would sweep aside all opposition proved unfounded. Instead, events confirmed the analysis of sceptics who have doubted the prospects of the Zuma faction in the elective conference of the ANC due to be held in December.

Fears about political instability and policy uncertainty were stoked by Zuma’s theatrical opening address to delegates, and by the initial swagger of many of his supporters on the conference floor. As the president’s initiatives foundered one after the other, however, some broad realities became clear: Zuma has little control over leadership elections, factional consolidation, policy direction or organisational change.

First, supporters of the candidacy of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Zuma’s successor were subdued. Dlamini-Zuma reportedly made little impact when she spoke. Her evident unsuitability to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2019 national elections inspired ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete to throw another one of her hats into the ring as an alternative “credible woman”.

For such an unlikely idea to have been aired at all indicates desperation in the Zuma camp about Dlamini-Zuma. Pressure will escalate for Zuma to identify a fresh candidate to more energetically wave the flag for KwaZulu-Natal, the premier league and the current patronage apparatus.

Second, the fragility of the coalition behind Zuma was further exposed. The incoherence of the “premier league” of maize-producing, rural provinces, was made clear by the fence-sitting of Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza.

Even the pro-Zuma KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, Sihle Zikalala, was careful to balance support for Zuma’s broader agenda with caution about the damaging impact of the Gupta family.

The Youth and Women’s Leagues still have votes to deploy in December, but they are now organisationally and intellectually impotent. The Women’s League’s decision that six men should join their delegation — because they are “less emotional” than women — marked a new low in ANC patriarchy.

In the commissions, the Youth League proved to be ineffectual in trying to deliver a carefully rehearsed script about the racial character of “monopoly capital”.

Third, the quite conservative policy agenda of the ANC emerged unscathed. With regard to the expropriation of land without compensation, black empowerment targets in the mining industry, Reserve Bank inflation targeting and the creation of a state bank, the Zuma camp’s anticipated symbolic victories all came to nothing.

Positions long supported by Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe — that the Bank’s private shareholder anomaly should be removed, that a state bank based in the Post Office should target small business finance, and that prudent negotiations are required in a fragile mining industry — all held sway.

Mantashe’s post-conference observation that capitalism is a “nuisance” — but that it is inescapable — captured the ANC’s enduring pragmatism on this issue well.

There was also little appetite for the usual rhetorical attacks on the media or the courts — presumably because their value has been demonstrated by the actions of Zuma and his associates.

Finally, various proposals for institutional and organisation change were advanced, but none was of any immediate significance. Gimmicks about the size of the top leadership — including an invitation to a defeated presidential candidate to become “second deputy president” — are meaningless in the absence of wider electoral system reform. Such wider changes cannot happen in advance of December’s watershed conference.

Zuma is down even if he is not out. In his closing address to the conference, he said the ANC has emerged both wiser and better. “We have a keen understanding of the challenges and how to overcome them,” he observed. No doubt he has a “Plan B”; all indications are that he will need one.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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